One district, poised to harm an entire nation

July 27, 2011 § 6 Comments

There’s a lot riding on this season’s federal discretionary spending allocations.  Literally – House Republicans have been attaching riders to the bills moving through the House to block many environmental programs, and some of these riders read like love letters to special interests.  If you are already involved in environmental causes, you’ve probably seen emails or posts about this.

Some of these riders have implications locally – here’s some delicacies from H.R. 2584:

  • If you think the Navigable Waters of the U.S. designation that triggers Clean Water Act protection should apply to our at times flashy western rivers and streams, there is a rider that will restrict the EPA and the Army Corps to Bush-era definitions of navigability, in other words, not cover our waterways if their current designations were challenged.  Remember last year’s victory declaring the L.A. River navigable?  The agencies charged with protecting our waterways wouldn’t have been able to make that declaration under this rider. (See Section 435 of the bill text);
  • The EPA would also be restricted in its ability to oversee how water is used to cool power plants.  The intakes of power plants suck in and kill significant quantities of marine life locally, one of the reasons this affects our local ecosystems. (Section 436);
  • Congress would also require additional studies and delays in the implementation of urban stormwater (runoff) management regulations. (Section 439);
  • Do you have a bad taste in your mouth yet? If you like that special flavor methyl bromide, atrazine, diazinon, or glyphosate adds to your produce, you will like it even more in your water!  (Title V) You can thank Representative Simpson (R-ID) -also the author of the previous gems – for adding a rider to prohibit the EPA from regulating its application and discharge into Waters of the U.S. Not that you will have any Waters of the U.S. in your vicinity anymore anyway.

The NRDC is keeping a running list of the riders* as they bubble up.  Unfettering of agricultural pollution discharges into Florida wetlands; cutting loose on mountaintop coal mining and stream destruction in Appalachia; radioactive waste storage near groundwater that, uh, may feed the Colorado River at the hotly debated Yucca Mountain site; uranium mining near the Grand Canyon; banning restrictions on Great Lakes ballast water that is intended to prevent the spread of invasive species; and several riders that impact, as in halt, the recovery of Pacific salmon are a sampling of the issues that pertain to those of us with national Creekfreak tendencies – and the riders go on and on, degrading our air quality, integrity of land and wildlife management, and of course sticking it to greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

But if you wanted to share your thoughts about these issues with the gentleman from Idaho, who put forward many of these eyepoppers, I have to warn you – his website has a filter to prevent you from contacting him unless you have an Idaho zipcode.  He may represent one district, but he stands poised to harm an entire nation.

*From which I’ve cribbed these notes – with additional info from

Little chirps in praise of willows and floods

June 7, 2010 § 29 Comments

Photo: Don Sterba, reprinted by LA Times

[ERRATA: Photo of Least bell's vireo was previously erroneously attributed to the LA Times. The photographer is Don Sterba, who also was the person to see and identify the bird. Apologies to Mr. Sterba for the error. The LA Times published his photo with credit, the oversight here was mine.]

Two pair of Least bell’s vireo, an endangered willow-loving bird, have set up camp in the vicinity of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. Thanks to the Friends of Ballona Wetlands blog and the LA Times for getting the word out!  The Times piece also touches on the controversy associated with the freshwater marsh and Playa Vista development. I do disagree with the Times’ characterization of the drainage “ditch” Hughes dug. It may have become a drainage ditch, but early USGS maps clearly indicate that Centinela Creek flowed through the land that became Hughes’ airfield, and the landscape there would have been a floodplain and likely transitional freshwater or brackish marsh area, the “ditch” a functioning creek.   « Read the rest of this entry »

How Long is the Los Angeles River?

September 29, 2008 § 2 Comments

How Long is the Los Angeles River? : A Rashomon-like Tale of Engineers, Librarians, Geographers and Poets

Creek freak, in record-setting verbosity, takes on the burning question of our day: just how long is the Los Angeles River? And while we’re at it: why is that important? and why isn’t that important? Quick, select “Mark as Read” and move on.

The Los Angeles River becomes the Los Angeles River proper in Canoga Park, at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek. From there it travels east through the San Fernando Valley, makes a right turn around Griffith Park, passes downtown Los Angeles, then heads south emptying into the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach. It’s not that long a trip. I’ve done it by bike in a day.

Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), where I used to work, pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 52 miles long, for example here: “[Taylor Yard] represents the single greatest opportunity for riverfront restoration along the entire 52 miles of the Los Angeles River.” The 52 mile figure gets repeated throughout the non-profit community, including on the websites for The River Project and The City Project (where I currently do contract work.) It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (1997) and the Daily News (2008.)

On the other hand, the county of Los Angeles pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 51 miles long, for example here: “Today, the Los Angeles River is lined on 77 km (47.9 miles) of its 82 km (51 miles) length”. This 51 mile figure gets repeated by most governmental agencies, including the city of Los Angeles, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and the regional Water Board. It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (2008) and the Daily News (2000 – not available free on-line.)

So… what’s the big deal? It’s only a mile, right? Well, often the struggle to revitalize the Los Angeles River is a struggle to give it respect, even if only semanitcally for now. There were legendary shouting matches between FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams calling it a “river” and County Public Works calling it a “flood control channel.” If we call it a river, then we can perceive it as one, and will treat it as one. I seem to recall, a long time ago, someone at FoLAR (maybe Lewis, maybe not – I don’t remember) told me the following: Historically the river was 52 miles long. When it was concreted from the 1930′s through the late 1950′s, it was straightened. In straightening, it ended up a mile shorter. As a political and tactical decision, FoLAR continued to call it a 52 mile river because the greater length gave it a greater stature, greater importance. I repeated this anecdote often. On tours I would tell folks that it’s really a 52 mile river, it’s just that it’s trapped in a 51 mile concrete straightjacket.

The blog was going to end somewhere around there, but, in doing his due diligence, the Creek Freak decided to try to verify quickly that 52 mile number by poking around some historical sources. Creek Freak’s own and the blogosphere’s generally impeccable credibility would be at state if I post something on the net that some sharp researcher could prove wrong too easily. I figured it would be a quick bike ride to my wonderful library and a search or two in the historical L.A. Times database (which I’ve used before) and I’d be done in less than 20 minutes, and I’d have incontrovertible proof of how right we river advocates are.

Turns out that it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Even the computer search had its uncertainties. Do I search on 52 or fifty-two? Mile or miles? Los Angeles River or L.A. River or LA River? How about the hypen/s in 52-miles or 52-miles-long? Would the search program smart enough to find those variations or do I have to match them verbatim? Well, I think I tried all the permutations, and I could not find any pre-concrete-era pre-FoLAR-era references to a 52 mile Los Angeles River. I checked with a couple librarians, some books, and nothing turned up. It’s not there (if any of you find it, please let me know, though!) I did find a lot of much more interesting stuff though. Here are some of them chronologically:

November 1939: Scientific American, in a 2-page article River Rebuilt to Curb Floods, states “Most important of the streams, insofar as their rampages may affect concentrated population, is the Los Angeles River. This stream, 70 miles in length, may be bone dry in summer, then carry water at a rate of 90,000 cubic feet per second… during a winter flood.” Wow! 70 miles in a peer-reviewed scientific journal! Who knew? This number might correspond to the length of the river before channelization, but I’m guessing that this number perhaps came from including one of the tributaries, maybe Arroyo Calabasas? That’s the oldest reference I found that stated a length for the river – and the longest mileage-wise.

July 12 1956: The Los Angeles Times, in an article L.A. River Project Due for Completion in 1957, states “Flood-control work on the entire length of the Los Angeles River, a distance of 49.1 miles, will be completed by December, 1957, Col. Arthur H. Frye Jr., district engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday.” Ouch, doesn’t 49.1 miles sound rather dinky? It’s more-or-less like the number mentioned on the county’s website above, with a shorter paved distance than total length. I’m guessing that means that they’re not counting one of the soft-bottom areas (either the ~3-mile estuary or the ~2-mile Sepulveda Basin). Perhaps the overall length got mixed up with the completely-paved length somewhere between Col. Frye and the author.

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River, states “Last week, after 23 years and $101,100,000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its project of concreting the bottom and sides of 50.9-mile-long Los Angeles River” The article goes on to describe the Timesmen’s trip, in a 5-person rubber boat, down the length of the river. Other than leaving out the word “the” (shouldn’t it be “…of the 50.9-mile-long?) and that not all the bottom was paved, that extra decimal place makes this entry sounds really precise, really exact. It’s probably right, and the 51 crowd is just rounding it to the nearest mile.

April 1 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Army Engineers’ Field Has Constant Growth, states “The paving of the 50-mile-long Los Angeles River – longest channel of this type ever constructed – was an Army Engineer project.” The fifty mile figure gets quoted in about a dozen articles in the times. I take it as a rounded to the closest multiple of ten estimate.

August 1990: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, in an article Mark Twain!, states “I decided to explore the waterway – all 55 miles of it – while it was still neither park nor freeway, to find out what L.A.’s only river was all about.” I’m not sure where 55 came from – maybe the proposed freeway at the time was 55 miles long? Maybe the author rounded up to the nearest nickel?

20 April 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994, the Los Angeles Times, in an article River Rescue, states “Its 58 miles are paved with 3 million barrels of concrete.” I can’t really explain this one either, but it’s got a great youthful photo (in color in the original) of FoLAR’s first executive director Martin Schlageter.

I decided to check books. In 1975, Anthony F. Turhollow, in A History of the Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1898-1965 (with positively creek-freak-like verbosity and enthusiasm) states (p.146): “One river, the Los Angeles, about 50 miles long, with a source 1,000 feet above sea level is not only at the same elevation as the mighty Mississippi River but also has the same amount of drop in its relatively short length as the Mississippi in its entire course.” In 1999, Gumprecht states (p.1): “Chain link fence and barbed wire line the river’s fifty-one-mile course.” He does mention (p. 228,232) a UCLA researcher who found that as a result of the channelization project the length of the river between between Tujunga Wash and Glendale Boulevard was 28% shorter, going from historically 11.3 miles down to a concreted 8.1 miles . In 2001, Patt Morrison, in Rio L.A., (in her great poetic way) states (p. 21) “For most of its fifty-one miles, it is as unmarked, and as unremarked upon, as a pauper’s grave.” The back cover of that Linton guy‘s 2005 book says 51 miles.

As I spent time searching for that elusive confirmation of the 52 mile source, I began to become more and more comfortable with a good fuzzy approximation like “about 50 miles.” It’s very defensible, impossible to prove wrong. I began to geek out on various ideas. Perhaps I could come up with some kind of graph that would show how the river’s cited length changes over time. Maybe I could map it out precisely using old aerials or USGS maps. I could use Gmap Pedometer or (gasp) go out to the field and try to use a bike odometer to measure the current channel’s length. Through all this research and speculation, I began to think in a deeper way about the length of the river.

The start of the river at the Bell/Calabasas confluence in Canoga Park is fairly arbitrary. Why not call it the Los Angeles River proper at the confluence of Bell Creek and Chatsworth Creek, located about a mile upstream, and quite equally concrete and anonymous? Why was the current upper river channel designated and not the Tujunga Wash? I’ve heard that many years the Tujunga Wash would contribute more water to the lower river than the upper river did. Gumprecht states (p.136): “The Los Angeles River had seldom been visible west of Encino before flood control, even during heavy runoff.” A lot of the river’s water is underground in the Valley and elsewhere, so it’s arbitrary to just base a river’s starting point on where there’s surface flow.

The river system is a fractal: branches folding into branches, a gradient of gradually increasing orders of magnitude as we move downstream. It’s mostly arbitrary where we say that it starts. It’s mostly arbitrary what we call it at a given point: river versus creek, stream, wash, arroyo, gully. The naming is likely an artifact that has to do with what time of the year the Spanish came through and named things. After all, the Spaniards called Arroyo Seco (dry creek) what the Tongva called Hahamongna (flowing waters fruitful valley.)

The mouth of the river is similarly arbitrary. Gumprecht states (p.19) “Such attempts to locate the mouth of the river precisely are exercises in foolishness.” This is a river that some years emptied into the San Pedro Bay and some years swung right out to the Santa Monica Bay and some years swung left out Alamitos Bay. SCCWRP’s Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain report describes the mouth of the San Gabriel River (historically indistinguishable from the mouth of the L.A. River) as “a complex matrix of wetlands, riparian habitat, and uplands that varied on an interannual basis depending on climatic patterns.” Further it describes their tidal fringe as a “series of sand dunes, sand spits and barrier beaches… alternately impounded and open to the ocean… Following storms, these areas could be impounded for several kilometers upstream.”

The Los Angeles River frequently moved around across its broad alluvial plains. It meandered its way among many low points in a broad braided channel. It was, as most natural systems are, very dynamic. So it’s really hubris that we humans, whether advocates or flood control engineers, pick a single number and expect it to apply as a constant for a river that changes over time.

Any static quantification we do (think average rain year, hundred-year-flood, bank-full width, total maximum daily load) is an approximation – or, perhaps more accurately, a water mark indicating just a point in time. Nature scoffs at these, proving us wrong year after year. It’s important that we do these measurements, that we try to understand the river… but none of us should perceive her in any state as constant, as unchanging. We should learn what we can, but we should expect changes and hopefully surprises, too. This gives me optimism for the future of our river.

So… precisely how long is the Los Angeles River? At this point, I’d go with about 50 miles.

(Creak freak thanks three librarians: Glen Creason, Michael Oppenheim and my mother Marge Linton. Thank you, too, dear reader for getting this far – I promise my next blog will be shorter and won’t be about the length of the San Gabriel River.)

Of nexus and navigability

August 4, 2008 § 5 Comments

Is the Los Angeles River navigable? The recent kayaking adventure, documented here at LA Creekfreak and elsewhere, demonstrated that it is. The Army Corps’ definition of navigability, however, may relate more narrowly to navigation for interstate commerce. Perhaps if people fly in from out of state, spend some money on kayak rentals, sunscreen and snacks, we’ll fit the definition.

Until then, however, we’re stuck with technicalese to protect the River. As the Army Corps has noted, the officially non-navigable reaches of the River remain protected due to their “significant nexus(link leads to ACOE ppt download on the topic) with the Navigable Water body reaches. Several Supreme Court justices ago, all that was needed to extend Clean Water Act protections to our southwestern rivers was evidence that a waterway was a tributary to a Navigable Water. Now it’s not so clear. I have heard conflicting things about tributaries and their status. A past, present, or potential future “significant nexus” needs to be demonstrated – basically someone has to prove that the degradation of a waterway would impact the water quality of the Navigable Water, and now each tributary to the LA River will need this level of investigation before it attains federal regulatory oversight (which does not guarantee physical protection, a topic for another day).

The River, like so many southwestern rivers and streams, had a great deal of variability to it. Some reaches may have been more like washes, where flows infiltrated into the groundwater; other reaches had perennial water flow. And if you go back a few hundred years, the lowest reach of the river was more like a broad wetland and forest floodplain that soaked up runoff like a sponge, with surface waters rarely reaching the ocean. These waterways were incredibly dynamic, shifting course when log jams or sediment would build up, forcing a new direction for the water to spread. Our mistake is in defining the river exclusively as the channel where we see water. Rivers function to transport water and sediment, dissipate energy, facilitate biological and chemical processes, and support habitat. In all rivers these functions depend upon not only the river’s channel but also its floodplain, and to some degree, its relationship to groundwater. A river is also the sum of its tributaries. The role of tributaries, the floodplain and groundwater may be even more pronounced in our southwestern rivers and streams, and our evaluation of the LA River should be inclusive of these relationships, not as the significant nexus, but as part and parcel of the River itself. This would be consistent with the Clean Water Act preamble, which states a purpose to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”.

For many, we would feel a greater level of security knowing the River, in either its current or historic configuration, simply met the criteria of Navigability. Historical data I’ve reviewed provides interesting, if hardly voluminous, evidence of boating (& swimming, not really a regulatory criteria but fun info). Despite the widespread characterization of the LA River as “a river by courtesy at times” that, like its tributaries, “sink(s) into the sand in places…and seep(s) along beneath the surface for miles, to appear again,” (Charles Holder, 1906) the river and its mountain tributaries were popular destinations for fishermen of steelhead trout. Ludwig Louis Salvator*, in his enthusiastic travelogue, Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, even references the use of boats to capture these fish:

“…fine brook-trout and salmon-trout are also caught. The latter are usually taken with what are called gill-nets…The net does not touch bottom since the fish swim fairly near the surface, but is stretched diagonally across the stream or a section of it and floats with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile while the fishermen follow behind in a boat.”

Unfortunately, Salvator does not identify specifically where this boating occurred, speaking only of mountain streams. It seems reasonable to speculate that boats following nets “with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile” would need to be on a relatively flat reach of a stream, i.e. the Los Angeles River in one of its perennial reaches, such as at elPotrero de los Felizes Los Pescaditos,“a favorite fishing place on the east side of the river opposite Griffith Park”. Speculation, however, isn’t the basis for regulation.

But boating was also known to occur within the lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers’ floodplains. More quotes from James P. Reagan’s 1914 oral histories:

Mr. J. H. Orr, Compton, R. F. D. 1, 101 Home at Compton.

Mr. Orr has lived in this neighborhood for twenty-six years. In 1889 he says the whole country was flooded and to give an idea of how much water there was, he with some others rowed in a boat from Downey almost to Compton, that is to the S. P. R. R. track, tied their boat and walked across to Compton, bought their provisions and returned in the same way. The water was all over the country for six weeks and nothing could be done…

Mr. Lafayette Saunders, 2303 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach

…I have seen this valley solid across here between these mesas (Los Cerritos and Dominguez Hill) and nearly four feet deep. I rode in a row boat with two other from Long Beach to Wilmington and returned for provisions, and the water was from a foot of(sic) so to three and one-half feet deep.”

Here the boating is seasonal in character and really a response to the natural flood regime, in that lower LA River basin that had one time been like a sponge. Obviously this was not pleasure boating! Reagan also indicated that the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows reach was good swimming:

Mr. Randall H. Hewitt, 529 Merchants Trust Bldg.

The year 1876 was a dry year and no water flowed below what was called the “Toma” in those days, above the Downey St. Bridge, which is now North Broadway, where the boys used to go swimming….

(the Toma was a dam that diverted water into the zanja irrigation system)

Joe Bernal, Room 53, Temple Block:

Mr. Bernal was seen at his office today at noon. He was born and raised in Los Angeles… In his boyhood days he used to go swimming in the Los Angeles river when it flowed down Alameda Street. (Reagan)

While hardly likely to convince the Corps that the LA River meets their definition of navigability, these historical anecdotes hint at humanity’s relationship to the river’s more complex structure.

Not just the river, all the streams and wetlands of the LA area, really, have already suffered death by a thousand cuts through the draining, channelization and culverting of over 90% of them. The “significant nexus” test here just adds several additional tons of paperwork and bureaucracy under which to bury our remaining waterways.


*Special thanks to Brian Braa, landscape architect, friend, and Seeking Streams cohort, whose research genius found this author & document.



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